THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Violence and Language

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lauren Lee Smith, Nick Searcy & David Hewlett

I’ve yet to see a bad movie from Guillermo Del Toro. Whether it be the eerie combination of Gothic horror and old-fashioned romance in his highly underrated CRIMSON PEAK, a dark fairy tale/war drama in PAN’S LABYRINTH, or Lovecraftian sensibilities in both HELLBOY movies, Del Toro clearly creates the films that he wants to make. Even lesser efforts like giant insect B-movie MIMIC still is miles above other 90s B-flicks of its same genre. Del Toro knocks another film out of the park with THE SHAPE OF WATER! This film plays out like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meets BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. With an audience-pleasing narrative and loads of imagination, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a wondrous cinematic experience!

In 1962’s Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodian working at a top-secret government facility. Esposito is looked down on by her snobby superiors, but has two great friends in talkative Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and oddball artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Everything changes when Elisa’s workplace receives its latest experiment: an Amazonian humanoid-like amphibian (Doug Jones). In a strange twist of fate, Elisa and the “monster” begin to form a romantic bond. All the while, headstrong Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns into a fearsome villain intent on dissecting the creature and concerned scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to keep the creature safe at all costs.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that THE SHAPE OF WATER began as Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea for a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake. When he was a child, he wanted to see the creature and Julie Adams romantically end happily ever after. Unsurprisingly, Universal (the same studio that effectively killed its “Dark Universe” in the space of one movie) rejected Del Toro’s original take on a remake. Del Toro then transformed his idea into THE SHAPE OF WATER and has also dubbed it as his first “adult” film that tackles issues he’s concerned about in the modern age…as opposed to childhood fantasies and nostalgia seen in previous entries in his filmography. As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER just might be Del Toro’s best film since PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Although it might sound hard to buy in a believable manner, the romance between Sally Hawkins’ protagonist and Doug Jones’ creature is totally compelling from start to finish. The ways in which these two outsiders bond over food, music, and sign language is beautiful. Hawkins is able to communicate everything she means without ever speaking a word…save for one dream sequence that serves as a great stylish WTF moment in the best way possible. Doug Jones does his usual weird thing as a monster, but doesn’t deliver any frights (save for when the creature is threatened).

Besides being a simple fantasy-romance between a mute woman and a fish-man (a description that woefully undersells this film), SHAPE OF WATER also has many subplots that further flesh out its characters in interesting ways. Nearly every character in this film receives a story arc that occurs around the woman-monster relationship. The most interesting of which easily belongs to Michael Shannon’s unusual villain. Strickland is easily one of the best roles that the madly talented Shannon has taken so far and allows him to flex his evil acting muscles as the story’s despicable antagonist. He also delivers a particularly gruesome moment that made my theater’s entire audience cringe and exclaim in unison.

I won’t mention too many details about the rest of the subplots. However, Michael Stuhlbarg is a very interesting character and his story arc is especially relevant to the time period of the 1960s. Richard Jenkins is just plain weird in spots, but that’s his character in this film. His distinct brand of quirkiness provides some chuckles, as well as many emotional moments that resonate in unexpected ways. Octavia Spencer is exactly a major character, but she does very well as a best friend who’s caught up in this monstrous mess. One thing that’s easy to notice is that almost all of these good characters are outsiders in some way, shape, or form. All the while, the main villain is the stereotypical 1960s macho-man American who’d usually be the hero in a 1950s/60s monster movie. It’s a fascinating switch-up to watch and one that only Del Toro could create in such a compelling manner.

As you might expect, SHAPE OF WATER’s visuals look amazing…much like the visuals in pretty much every other Del Toro production. The 1960s era is captured in a way that almost seems foreign…pointing out big problems that existed in the supposedly clean old-fashioned 60s. However, this is never done in a way that seems distractingly excessive or intrusive to the film’s story. Instead, it adds yet another layer to this wonderfully creative cinematic beauty. The effects are also worth praising as the blending of practical effects (in Doug Jones’ monster suit and brief gory bits) and computer-generated imagery (in the underwater sequences and shots that would be impossible to capture practically) is seamless.

Del Toro has done it again! This director has yet to make a bad or even mediocre film as he continues his winning streak in THE SHAPE OF WATER. WATER’s performances are stellar across the board, with especially impressive acting from a soundless Sally Hawkins. Spectacular special effects, a whimsical soundtrack, fantastical atmosphere, well-developed characters, and clever writing that blends a main story with many subplots, all make THE SHAPE OF WATER worth your time. If you want to see an out-of-the-ordinary romance that is romantic but not conventional by any means, then dive into this wondrous cinematic oddity.

Grade: A+

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Thematic Elements, Rude Humor and Action

Zootopia poster

Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush

Written by: Jared Bush & Phil Johnston

Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk & Kristen Bell

I wasn’t exactly excited to watch ZOOTOPIA. Though Disney seems to be on a winning streak lately, their previous attempt to capture an anthropomorphic animal society (CHICKEN LITTLE) was less than stellar. Though the DMV sloth trailer made me laugh and the reviews have been nothing but great, I still had my doubts walking into ZOOTOPIA. I was pleasantly surprised. ZOOTOPIA is a vibrant, creative, very funny film for the whole family that also packs a nice message into its package. This movie is far smarter than I expected it to be and is guaranteed to entertain viewers of all ages in equal measures.

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Zootopia is a big city populated by anthropomorphic mammals. Both predators and prey inhabit this massive metropolis. It’s a place where young Judy Hopps has always wanted to live. Despite her small stature, Hopps became the world’s first rabbit police officer and has been assigned to serve in Zootopia as the result of a mammal inclusion program. However, Hopps’s captain is unenthused about her presence and assigns her the less than glamorous position of meter maid. Desperate to prove herself, Officer Hopps agrees to solve a seemingly impossible case or resign from the force. With a ticking clock and no big clues to speak of, Judy Hopps and streetwise fox Nick Wilde must find a missing otter within 48 hours.

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ZOOTOPIA might sound like a fairly simple and to-the-point animated comedy from that synopsis, but one of the best qualities in this movie is how it wisely changes the viewer’s expectations as it goes along. My set up of the story is only a small portion of a much larger film that packs in a lot of twists, clever humor, and poignant social commentary. Sure, the overall messages about acceptance and discrimination are blatantly obvious, but they never feel too preachy. On the contrary, some of the biggest laughs come from animal “slurs” and species stereotypes. However, the film also balances this humor with a touching story that has real emotional moments.

ZOOTOPIA

Judy Hopps will serve as a good role model for kids, but my favorite character is Nick Wilde (voiced perfectly by Jason Bateman). Though his character might seemingly live up to every cunning fox stereotype that you would expect (hence feeding into the overall message of the film), there are complex inner workings and an instant likability to this smart-aleck predator. These qualities are evident in one of the film’s most emotional moments: an honest heart-to-heart between Nick and Judy. Though the city of Zootopia is vast and packed with many species of entertaining animals, some notable names in the supporting cast include: Idris Elba (the harsh buffalo police captain), J.K. Simmons (the lion mayor), Jenny Slate (the sheep assistant mayor), and Nate Torrence (the cheetah dispatcher).

ZOOTOPIA

The locations in ZOOTOPIA are brought to life through beautiful animation with lots of vibrant colors and creativity. You can tell that a lot of thought, effort, and imagination went into putting together ZOOTOPIA as the smallest details have been thought of and addressed. There are various environments throughout the city (rainforest, frozen tundra, etc.) for different species as well as everything being accurate to the sizes of the animal citizens (mice use small tubes to travel, giraffes have chutes that send up their coffee, etc.). The humor is also to be praised as kids will enjoy goofy physical comedy and “naked” animals at a naturalist colony, but there’s an equal amount of smart laughs to be had for older viewers. Try to name another Disney film that references both THE GODFATHER and BREAKING BAD.

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Though Pixar has become hit-or-miss since 2010 (with INSIDE OUT being their top-notch return to form), Disney Animation seems to be going through a current Renaissance (much akin to the Disney Renaissance from ’89 to ’99). ZOOTOPIA is the latest in the ever-growing line of modern Disney classics (including FROZEN, WRECK-IT RALPH, and TANGLED). There’s not much else to say about this film without sounding repetitive. The animation is great. The humor is funny. The message is touching and relevant. The characters are lovable. The writing is smart. See it!

Grade: A

INSURGENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action throughout, some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and brief Language

Insurgent poster

Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman & Mark Bomback

(based on the novel INSURGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer & Ashley Judd

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT. That movie felt like an overly derivative mess that didn’t have a satisfying story, was filled with bland characters, and lowered even further by a cliché-ridden script. I really, truly hated DIVERGENT. So why am I reviewing INSURGENT? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and asked people on Facebook if they wanted me to keep covering the series until its conclusion. They said yes, so here I am. INSURGENT is slightly better than DIVERGENT. It’s shorter, doesn’t waste time with unnecessary set-up, and manages to smuggle in a couple of cool action scenes. However, new problems arise in really stupid plot developments and eye-rolling moments that give Edward and Bella some competition for most unconvincing couple of the new millennium.

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When last we left the land of DIVERGENT, Tris’s parents had been killed, the fabric of an unstable class system was in question, and our group of fugitive heroes had escaped from the clutches of the evil Jeanine. Tris, Four (Tris’s lover), Peter (Tris’s nemesis) and Caleb (Tris’s brother) are hiding out in peaceful territory, but soon find themselves being ruthlessly chased by Jeanine and the Dauntless. It turns out that Jeanine (or as someone has referred to her, Female President Snow) has recovered an important artifact that can only be opened by a powerful Divergent. As Tris’s few surviving loved ones are threatened, this teenage heroine discovers that she’s the only hope of opening this artifact. That’s pretty much the plot right there. There are action scenes and encounters with other Factions, but INSURGENT has about as much going on as DIVERGENT did plot-wise. It’s familiar and basic stuff that’s made to look overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.

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INSURGENT thankfully doesn’t bother giving us a flashback set-up sequence, but still packs in plenty of young-adult clichés all over the place. The characters remain hollow and the cast appears to know that they’ve moved on to bigger things since DIVERGENT. Shailene Woodley (FAULT IN OUR STARS) is a one-note action heroine as Tris and still manages to garner plenty unintentional laughter on occasion, but also looks bored with the material she’s been given. Ansel Elgort is a woeful coward stereotype and doesn’t get a significant amount of screen time. Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet both seem present only to pick up an easy paycheck, though Blanchett gives the best performance of the whole film. The biggest blow comes in Miles Teller as the lame comic relief character who mainly serves as a convenient trigger for two plot points. Teller has recently come off of the amazing WHIPLASH and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy for starring in this sequel.

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INSURGENT’s visuals look good and more focus is placed on the post-apocalyptic world this time around. The ideas are still dumb and overused, but watching a crumbling futuristic society was slightly more interesting than watching a teenage girl try to become a member of a club…I mean, Faction. Though there isn’t an abundance of them, INSURGENT has good action scenes. I was enjoying myself during a shoot-out, a well-done chase scene and simulations that are the best scenes in the film. This being said, there are still lots of unintentional laugh-out-loud bits. My favorite of which involved Four yelling at someone “My name is Four!” and walking away from a dinner table like a pouty brat who constantly whines about nobody understanding them. In all honesty, that might be a portion of the film’s target audience though.

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The bad doesn’t stop there as the script feels downright lazy. This was based on a novel and I understand that part of these story problems birth from unoriginal source material, but there’s no excuse for how poorly written some of this stuff is. For example, there’s a huge plot point hinging on what’s inside this artifact and this is frequently brought up throughout two hours. When it’s ultimately revealed, it’s very underwhelming (not that I was expecting much to begin with) and insulting to the viewer. The discovery also more than reminded me a little of a certain other young-adult adaptation that came out last September, where that reveal also felt like a cop-out. I rolled my eyes so much during INSURGENT that I bordered on a possible hazard of vision problems.

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Going off the last note of INSURGENT, I’m really not sure what else of this story needs to or can be told. This opinion stems partially from just how bad these first two movies have been, but also because I really don’t think there’s much more of a story left to tell (let alone for TWO more films!). Seeing as HUNGER GAMES is ending this year, the young-adult void has been momentarily filled by the DIVERGENT series and THE MAZE RUNNER, though I’m really looking forward to the upcoming I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. INSURGENT manages to be a miniscule hair above DIVERGENT in running time, but it’s just as convoluted and poorly executed as the first film. Now I’ll just go back to pretending that this series doesn’t exist until ALLEGIANT: Part 1 (of course!) hits next March.

Grade: D

SNOWPIERCER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and Drug Content

Snowpierce poster

Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho

Written by: Bong Joon-Ho & Kelly Masterson

(based on the graphic novel SNOWPIERCER by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette)

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Go Ah-Sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris & Alison Pill

Though it’s the adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel, most people will compare SNOWPIERCER to the recent Sci-Fi blockbuster ELYSIUM. The film is just as subtle in its social commentary of class warfare taken to a violent extreme and is also set in an post-apocalyptic wasteland where the rich are large and in charge. I described ELYSIUM as a film that could easily have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday, but the same cannot be said of SNOWPIERCER. This is a more confident, far more developed, infinitely more creative and an all around better film on every conceivable level. Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut is not without some noticeable flaws, but this is one Science Fiction story that will linger in my mind for some time to come and practically demands repeat viewings from the entertainment value alone.

SNOWPIERCER, Chris Evans, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

Eighteen years in the future, a second ice age has set in and life on Earth is extinct. That is except for the lucky passengers of the “rattling ark.” An engineering genius named Wilford constructed a massive train, powered by an eternal engine, that travels across the entire world. The train is a self-contained ecosystem that sustains human life with no expiration date. Of course, with all of these people crammed aboard from various walks of life, a natural class system is adopted. The rich live in the front cars and enjoy a glamorous lifestyle. The poor are crowded together in the tail of train, living in horrible conditions, and dying young. A few small revolutions have already taken place and failed. Curtis is a man stuck at the back of the train with a plan for a successful rebellion against the powerful dictating the train. Everything is intricately set into motion for this new revolution to take place. Of course, the elite will fight against these lower class in order to keep their wealthy status intact. Needless to say that conflicts ensue and a group of “tail hicks” traveling to the engine room at the front of the train is no easy task.

SNOWPIERCER, Jamie Bell, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

SNOWPIERCER is helmed by visionary Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (his other work including such films as monster movie THE HOST and the critically acclaimed mystery MOTHER). Some problems can be seen early on in the frozen landscape setting looking a bit iffy in a crucial moment and one action scene indulging in incoherent shaky camera work. Luckily, these problems don’t rear their ugly heads again. The production design on every set is very well done and sucks you into the dire world that these characters inhabit. Every car is set apart from the previous one and I felt like I was on board making my way across the entire train as lives were lost with each step of the way. This is an intense film to say the least.

SNOWPIERCER, John Hurt (left), 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

Occasionally, there are a few missteps later on. Some attempts at humor feel forced and there is a minor nagging detail that was far-fetched (even given the world this movie takes place in). The villains also come off as ridiculously evil. It’s almost cartoonish how wicked they get and it worked in the favor of me hating them, because I was rooting for certain antagonists to die in the most painful way imaginable. Every actor delivers a strong performance with the exception of Tilda Swinton. She plays one of the more notable villains and I hated her with every fiber of my being, but she was going far over-the-top. Even Jodie Foster’s character in the aforementioned ELYSIUM with all of her scenery-chewing was subtle compared to Swinton’s ridiculous portrayal of an already despicable character.

SNOWPIERCER, Tilda Swinton, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

Given those notable faults, there are certain scenes in SNOWPIERCER that are nothing short of brilliant. One monologue that Chris Evans gives reminded me of the same emotional weight that Quint’s speech had in JAWS. Another scene within a classroom contained a lot of dark humor that worked wonders. One extended fight/chase/fight sequence spanning several train cars between a calm baddie and the group was awesome. With every silly moment that doesn’t quite work, there are five more well executed scenes that make up for it. It’s not that the viewer won’t notice a few nitpicky things, but everything else is so gripping you probably won’t be too bothered by it. Some plot revelations near the end are ingenious and to say anything more on them would be criminal.

SNOWPIERCER, Chris Evans, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

SNOWPIERCER is far from a masterpiece or a new classic, but it’s bursting with tension and awesome level of well-realized creativity. The pacing never lags and I have no clue as to why the Weinsteins wanted to trim 20 minutes out of the final cut. Director Joon-Ho doesn’t go overly crazy in the bloodshed department, but doesn’t shy way from graphic violence that is essential to the story being told. The social commentary is as subtle as ELYSIUM, but the story and execution could not be more different. There are a few minor bumps, but this is a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride of a movie!

Grade: B+

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